Genre film lost one of its most influential forces last week when author and screenwriter Richard Matheson passed away. Whether writing originally for the screen, as with the STAR TREK episode, “The Enemy Within,” adapting his own work, which he did for such classic TWILIGHT ZONE episodes as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and the archetypal 50’s horror film THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, or adapting others, including bringing Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife to the screen as BURN WITCH BURN (a.k.a. NIGHT OF THE EAGLE), Matheson was able to embue his scripts with a contemporary outlook and an incisive inquest into the human condition that helped define genre film for the latter half of the twentieth century, and on into the twenty-first.
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons sit down to discuss Matheson’s contribution to the world of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, weigh his overall influence on popular cinema, and discuss favorite examples of his work. Also in this show: Steve and Dan discuss the recent limited releases BYZANTIUM and 100 BLOODY ACRES. Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.
Ever since WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) introduced movie audiences to the classic image of the zombie (a mindless revived corpse, directed by a Voodoo houngan [priest]), the restless dead have been shambling across the silver screen in various shapes and sizes, eventually throwing off the shackles of their masters and developing strange new appetites (first for human flesh, then for brains). Here is a representative sample.
WHITE ZOMBIE (1932): Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi, left) directs his mindless minions. The corpses have no will of their own; the film’s true monster is their master.
REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (1936): This week follow-up to WHITE ZOMBIE posits the idea of an unstoppable undead army in WWI – offering the first suggestion of zombies as a worldwide threat.
THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940): This is probably the first zombie film to mix horror and comedy. Although the zombie (Noble Johnson) is revealed to be a fake planted to scare away Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, his scenes are played for scares more than laughs.
KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941): Comic actor Mantan Moreland gets some laughs from his reaction to traditional-looking zombies, who turn out to be under the direction of a Nazi scientist.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943): Darby Jones as the zombie Carrefour, in the classic produced by Val Lewton. The Voodoo element is strongly represented here. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, this is probably the greatest film every made using the traditional zombie theme.
ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957): This low-budget effort is memorably only for the novel concept of water-logged zombies guarding a sunken treasure.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968): Though the word “zombie” is never mentioned, George A. Romero’s film changed the genre forever, reinventing the walking dead as cannibal corpses, driven by instinct to consume the living. Romero wrote but did not direct the 1990 color remake – a worthwhile film, but not classic.
TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971): Amando de Ossorio’s film introduced the zombie-like Knights Templar, who would return in three sequels. Despite their desiccated appearance, the Templars were more of an undead cult than mindless corpses.
LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE (a.k.a., THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, 1974): This Spanish film, obviously inspired by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, is the first to show zombie cannibal carnage in color.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978): George A. Romero’s sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers cinema’s first vision of the zombie apocalypse, which plays out in the microcosm of a shopping mall. Tom Savini’s graphic makeup effects, including exploding heads and disemboweled intestines, set the standard for all zombie films to follow.
ZOMBIE (a.k.a., ZOMBIE 2, 1979): Directed by Lucio Fulci, this Italian film combines the graphic splatter approach of DAWN OF THE DEAD with the zombies’ more traditional roots in Voodoo. The result, presented as an ersatz sequel to DAWN OF THE DEAD (which was released as ZOMBIE in Europe) launched an army of Italian zombie gorefests.
THE BEYOND (1981): Director Lucio Fulci offers two kinds of living dead: corporeal walking corpses and a more magical variety, able to appear and disappear at will.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981): Sam Raimi’s sleeper hit features human bodies possessed and sometimes resurrected by evil spirits. The grim, low-budget intensity echoes THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The 2013 remake emphasized the possession angle, so that there were few if any walking corpses on screen.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985): Dan O’Bannon’s black-comedy pseudo-sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD re-imagines zombies as unkillable brain-eaters.
RE-ANIMATOR (1985): Stuart Gordon’s unrated gore film offered a more energetic species of living dead, resurrected by Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs)’ formula.
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985): Romero’s third living dead film presents us with the world’s first “domesticated” zombie, Bub (Sherman Howard), capable of some primitive human thought. Romero would continue to explore the zombie apocalypse in LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.
EVIL DEAD 2 (1987): Sam Raimi’s sequel to THE EVIL DEAD (1981) pushes the unrated gore to comic levels.
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988): Wes Craven’s film, based on a non-fiction book, returned zombies to their West Indies roots, suggesting a realistic explanation: drugs to induce mindless catatonia.
BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. “Dead Alive,” 1992): A pre-Tolkein Peter Jackson tries to outdo Sam Raimi in the gleeful gore department, and almost succeeds.
RESIDENT EVIL (2002): based on the popular vidoegame, writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson’s film offered an amped-up version of zombie violence. Several sequels followed, the best being RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION (2012)
28 DAYS LATER (2002): Instead of traditional zombies, director Danny Boyle’s film featured living people infected by a virus that drives them to mindless homicidal rage – an idea used by George A. Romero way back in THE CRAZIES (1973). The sequel 28 WEEKS LATER expands upon and surpasses the original.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004): This remake of Romero’s classic substitutes speedy zombies in place of the familiar shambling walkers. It’s entertaining in a slick professional way, with some good characterization, but it lacks the social satire of the original.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004): Riffing off Romero’s films, this comedy combines the zombie apocalypse with a love story; the end offers another glimpse of a domesticated zombie.
FIDO (2006): Billy Connolly plays a literally domesticated zombie, serving a human household as combination butler-pet.
[REC] [ (2007): This Spanish film filtered zombies through the lens of a hand-held shaky-cam, in the style of “found footage” films. The explanation for the zombies is a combination of virus and supernatural evil, an idea explored in the first of two sequels. There was also an American remake, QUARANTINE.
I AM LEGEND (2007): Are they vampires or zombies? It’s not clear, but thanks to the star power of Will Smith, this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel reached a wider audience than any zombie movie before.
DEAD SNOW (2009): Nazis-had been done before but never better than in this somewhat comic horror film from Norway
ZOMBIELAND (2009): This took the 28 DAYS LATER concept of zombies as virus-infected-humans, and mainstreamed it for the masses with a comedic approach, achieving blockbuster success.
THE CRAZIES (2010): This remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 film offers another version of viral zombies – not the living dead, but infected humans.
THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2013): This AMC series, based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel, hews close to the zombie concept laid down by Romero but appealed to non-genre fans with its characterization and story-telling. The graphic make up and effects are courtesy of Greg Nicotero, who had assisted Tom Savini on DAY OF THE DEAD.
WARM BODIES (2013): This comedy-romance gives us zombies with a heart as “R” (Nicholas Hoult) finds his human emotions revived when he falls in love with Julie (Teresa Palmer).
WORLD WAR Z (2013): This big-budget blockbuster played out the zombie apocalypse on a bigger scale than ever before.
The week of Tuesday, August 3 offers a hidden bat cave full of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD – everything from contemporary costumed crime-fighters to Corman Cult Classics. Up first is Lionsgate’s release of KICK-ASS, starring Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong. Chloë Grace Moretz, Clark Duke, and Nicolas Cage. Available to rent or own via Video on Demand, KICK-ASS is also being offered on DVD and Blu-ray disc. The DVD is offered as stand-alone purchase and as part of the Blu-ray three-disk set, which also includes a digital copy of the film. Check out more details below:
BLU-RAY DISC SPECIAL FEATURES*
- Ass-Kicking Bonus View Mode (Blu-ray Disc Exclusive) – Synchronous with the feature film, this innovative multi-media presentation incorporates video and audio commentary, behind-the-scenes clips and illustrative graphics with Co-Writer/Producer/Director Matthew Vaughn, plus cast and crew providing an all-access perspective on Kick-Ass
- “A New Kind of Superhero: The Making of Kick-Ass ” documentary (Blu-ray Disc Exclusive)
- “It’s On! The Comic Book Origin of Kick-Ass” featurette
- Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Matthew Vaughn
- “The Art of Kick-Ass” gallery
- Marketing Archive
- BD Touch and Metamenu Remote
- Lionsgate Live™ enabled, featuring extra content for Internet-connected players
- Enhanced for D-Box™ Motion Control Systems
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES*
- Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Matthew Vaughn
- “It’s On! The Comic Book Origin of Kick-Ass” featurette
- “The Art of Kick-Ass” gallery
- Marketing Archive
*Subject to change
If that’s not enough superhero action for you, then check out HEROES: SEASON FOUR, available on DVD and Blu-ray disc. The DVD offers numerous four featurettes, deleted and extended scenes, a screen-saver gallery, and audio commentaries on the episodes “Once Upon a Time in Texas,” “Shadow Boxing,” “The Fifth Stage,” and “Brave New World.” The Blu-ray disc replicates these bonus materials along with bios on the characters and and additional feturette (“Behind the Big Top”), plus the usual array of interactive features for which the format is known: BD-LIVE, pocket BLU, Advanced Remote Control, Video Timeline, Mobile-To-Go, U-CONTROL, PICTURE-IN-PICTURE, and more.
THE GHOST WRITER also hits store shelves in DVD and Blu-ray editions. Though not a horror film, Roman Polanski’s excellent adaptation of the Robert Harris novel, is thematically consistent with the director’s classic horror films, ROSEMARY’S BABY and DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES. The story follows a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) helping a former prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) write his memoirs; unfortunately, sinister forces are interested in the contents of the manuscript, whose previous ghost writer drowned under mysterious circumstances. THE GHOST WRITER generates more than enough paranoid tension to qualify as a “scary movie,” even if the scares are of the thriller variety.
AFTER.LIFE – which stars Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, and Justin Long – arrives on Blu-ray and DVD and having had a limited theatrical release earlier this year. Despite an intriguing premise, this morbid little indie horror film with art house aspirations is ultimately disappointing. Bonus features include a theatrical trailer, an interview with director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, and an eight-minute featurette somewhat pretentiously titled “Dwelling Into the After.Life: The Art of Making a Thriller.”
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics is at it again, offering elaborate DVD and Blu-ray releases of exploitation titles of the type that do not normally receive the lavish treatment. This time out we have PIRANHA on Blu-ray and a Lenticular Cover DVD, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP on Blu-ray and DVD, and a double bill DVD of DEATH SPORT and BATTLE TRUCK. The later of is only marginal interest, but HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP deserves its place in history for taking the implications of old monster movies (which inevitably had the monster sweeping the leading lady off her feet) and seeing them through to their logical conclusion. Both Blu-ray disc features a new high-def transfer of the uncut international version; deleted scenes; trailers, TV and radio spots; an interview with producer Roger Corman; and a making-of featurette. The DVD duplicates the bonus material, with standard-def video quality.
PIRANHA is one of the best films ever to come out of Corman’s New World Pictures, a fun and fast-paced horror thriller about scientifically altered killer fish, starring Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies. (It is highly doubtful that the upcoming 3-D remake will be an improvement.). The film was previously the subject of a special edition DVD. The Blu-ray ports over the old features (audio commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers) and adds some new ones: a making-of featurette, still and poster galleries, radio and TV spots, and additional footage that was inserted into the version of the film broadcast on network television. As with HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, the DVD duplicates the bonus features; both discs offer a new anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85), but of course the Blu-ray features higher video quality.
As for the rest:
- JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH comes out in a new Blu-ray release that ports over the old DVD bonus features, adding only higher video quality and a new game.
- PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN, the 1951 film version of the classic story about the immortal sea captain, starring James Mason and Ava Gardner, arrives in a new Blu-ray release.
- I AM LEGEND is resurrected in an Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray set.
- A handful of other titles: METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN; HOBOKEN HOLLOW (with Dennis Hopper); and OPEN HOUSE.
Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend may not be as famous as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it is as least as influential on the development of modern vampire cinema. Not only have there been three official film adaptations; Matheson’s science-fiction approach to vampirism prefigures the majority of modern film treatments of the subject, and the novel’s story of a world overwhelmed by the living dead has served as the template for an apparently deathless parade of apocalyptic zombie movies, beginning most notably with George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. That is quite an achievement for a rather short novel with only a single major character and very little dialogue. Still, the question is whether the book is any good in its own right, or is it just a well of inspiration for the cinema? To some extent, it depend on whom you ask: Leonard Wolf, in his pioneering work A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead, dismisses I Am Legend as boring, but in his undead encyclopedia V is for Vampire, David J. Skal (Wolf’s heir apparent as the premiere commentator on all things undead) calls the book a “masterful science-fiction/horror-thriller.” Matheson’s tale may not quite be a masterpiece, but it is an engrossing experience that deserves to be appreciated on its own literary terms, not just as a seminal piece of horror history.
Set in Los Angeles, 1976 (which at the time of publication was over two decades in the future), the novel tells the tale of Robert Neville, apparently the only survivor of a plague that has turned the rest of the world in vampires. The story begins by presenting the day-to-day monotony of Neville’s struggle for survival – growing garlic, repairing his generator, carving stakes – while he struggles with loneliness, despair, and sexual frustration. At first Neville spends his time feeling sorry for himself and mourning the deaths of his wife and his daughter, drinking heavily and blasting out classical music to drown the sound of the vampires who swarm around his house every night, hungering for his blood. After a close call (he stays out too late one day, arriving home after dark, when the vampires are out), he gets his act together and begins to approach his problem analytically, searching for answers: Why do vampires fear the garlic? Do they have to avoid running water? Why is a stake through the heart effective? And after centuries in the darkness, how did this ancient plague manage to overrun the entire planet?
Working on the theory that vampirism is a disease, Neville systematically proves that garlic creates an allergic reaction in the infected, that the myth about running water is only a myth, and that piercing the heart is not necessary: any large enough wound will allow oxygen into the body, causing the bacillus to parasitize its host and sporulate, the spores spreading on the wind to find new victims. The plague managed to overwhelm the Earth because the spores were carried on the dust storms that swept the planet after a nuclear war (referenced only briefly in the dialogue, during one of the book’s flashbacks).
However, Neville runs up against an obvious roadblock: a bacillus in the blood would not explain why the undead fear the cross and avoid their reflection in a mirror. Eventually, he recalls that, as the world plunged into chaos, a wave of apocalyptic religious revivalism swept the world, implanting old superstitions into the minds of those who were killed and resurrected by the plague. Their brains no longer fully functional (which explains why they never thought to burn down the house where Neville hides out), they believed themselves to be damned creatures who must shun religious icons, and their self-loathing creates a hysterical blindness that prevents them from seeing their own reflection. (Matheson specifies that only Christian vampires fear the cross; for Jews, the Star of David does the trick.)
Neville befriends a dog that has somehow survived, but the creature turns out to be infected, and Neville is unable to cure it. The dog’s death is a turning point for Neville, after which he gives up even the illusion of hope for companionship. He resigns himself to facing life as it is, realizing that the vampires are not the formidable creatures of legend but a “highly perishable” race that can be defeated.
Two years later, Neville resembles a hermit who has stopped shaving and cutting his hair. He has neither hopes nor dreams, but his life is secure. His one diversion is hunting for Ben Cortman, a neighbor-turned-vampire who retains enough intelligence to avoid Neville’s efforts, realizing that he is being singled out for special attention.
Neville’s daily routine is interrupted by the arrival of Ruth, who runs away from him in fear (hardly surprising, considering his appearance). Neville catches and questions her, but her explanations for how she has managed to survive are not fully satisfying. When Neville tests her blood, he realizes that she is infected, and she knocks him out, leaving a note to explain that there are others like her – living vampires who have found a treatment that keeps them alive even though it does not cure the disease.
Ruth’s note warns Neville to leave before her comrades come back for him, but Neville stays. Six months later, the new society of living vampires shows up, wiping out the undead – including Cortman – and imprisoning Neville. The Last Man on Earth is to be executed for the murder of the many living vampries he killed (including Ruth’s husband), but Ruth slips him a poison so that he may escape the executioner’s noose. In his last moments, Neville realizes that the standard of normalcy is a majority concept: in the new world, he is the abnormal one, the lone monster who comes without warning to destroy loved ones without mercy. He is Legend.
Through experiments on the dead vampires he had discovered that the bacilli effected the creation of a powerful body glue that sealed bullet openings as soon as they were made. Bullets were enclosed almost immediately, and since the system was activated by germs, the bullet couldn’t hurt it. The system could, in fact, contain almost an indefinite amount of bullets, since the body glue prevented a penetration of more than a few fractiosn of an inch. Shooting vampires was like throwing pebbles into tar.
– from I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
The strength of the novel lies chiefly in two areas: the characterization and the scientific approach to vampirism. Matheson takes a tired cliche, the stuff of old-fashioned Gothic tales, and morphs it into a modern, credible, science-fiction action-adventure story, loaded with thrills and horror. More than that, he gives us a memorable Everyman hero, a working class guy who rolls with the punches – and punches back. There is enough gun-play and other action so that one can easily imagine a young Clint Eastwood playing the part, but the character also has a thoughtful, introspective side – pretty much a necessity when you have no human companionship left.
Matheson does an impressive job of keeping the story going with only one character, who is called upon to act and think but seldom to discuss. Not only does he have no human comrades; the vampires are inarticulate. (The only words we hear from them are Cortman’s repeated refrain, “Come out, Neville!” – urging Robert to give himself up to the vampire throng surrounding his house.) A few flashbacks provide glimpses of how the world fell apart. Matheson captures Neville’s despair over having to throw his dead daughter into a pit where the dead are consigned to flames, in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading. And the resurrection of Neville’s wife is a nice, traditional “horror” scene. Later, in the scenes with Ruth, the dialogue chews over some heavier material – regarding the relative merits of the emerging new society – without sounding too heavy-handed.
There are some mis-steps. Neville realizes early on that not all the vampires he hunts are dead, because some of the infected that he stakes are still breathing. Yet it never occurs to him to make any distinction between them, and the reader is left wondering why the novel makes the distinction at all – until the third act revelation regarding Ruth.
Decades before the AIDS epidemic, Matheson’s portrait of a group of people who are infected but able to live with the disease, thanks to some miraculous drug cocktail, seems prophetic. Yet for some reason, Matheson seems uncomfortable with the drug explanation for the new order of vampires and has Neville realize, after looking at Ruth’s blood under a microscope, that “bacteria can mutate” (into what is never explained – the idea is never developed further).
At times, the book reveals its age. Although Neville traverses large cross-sections of Los Angeles, his mind remains rooted in White Male Reality. There is not a hint of awareness about the ethnic nature of any of the neighborhoods he passes through. The one black character shows up for a two-paragraph flashback (providing a tiny piece of exposition) and promptly disappears: he isn’t even named; he is just “the Negro.” While discussing the question of whether a cross would frighten non-Christian vampires, the best word Matheson can muster for followers of Islam is Mohammedan, which sounds a bit awkward compared to Muslim.
No doubt unwittingly, Matheson also reveals the pitfalls of de-mystifying vampires: robbed of their satanic cache, they are not very frightening. The blood-suckers in I Am Legend are dangerous only because of their superior numbers, and even then Neville can often outmaneuver and outfight them. As individuals, the dead vampires are not particularly interesting. Only Cortman, who still has a glimmer of intelligence, stands out ever so slightly, but he is not likely to topple Count Dracula from the throne of Vampire King.
The real horror in the book is not the vampires per se; it is the existential dread of being alone, of realizing that one’s culture – the beliefs and assumptions that are an almost unconscious part of daily living – is ephemeral, a construct held in place by society, and if that society disappears, everything else disappears with it. Neville’s final revelation – that he is the monster in this new world order – strikes a knock-out blow to the reader with more impact than any philosophical treatise. The ending of the book opens wide your sense of wonder not to uplifting glories of a bountiful future but the unacknowledged emptiness lying beneath the veneer of civilization.
Despite the book’s cinematic potential, there has never been a great film adaptation of I Am Legend. The first, aborted attempt was for Hammer Films in England, but the British censor would not approve Matheson’s script. Fans can only shakes their heads in regret. The film was scheduled to be directed by Val Guest, and one suspects he would have delivered something along the lines of his two Quatermass movies, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and QUATERMASS II – two black-and-white gems of science-fiction horror.
The first adaptation to make it all the way to the screen was 1964’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. Although relatively faithful to the novel, the film was hampered by an obviously low budget, and Vincent Price was seriously miscast in the lead, here named Robert Morgan. The film captures some of the gloom of the source material, particularly in scenes of Morgan disposing of his daughter’s body in the vast smoking pit where the dead plague victims are consigned.
The script, credited to Logan Swanson (Matheson’s pseudonym) and William F. Leicester, makes a couple interesting changes. Unlike Neville, Morgan is not a working class man but a scientist, presumably to make his study of the disease more believable. Also, Morgan makes frequent broadcasts on his ham radio, hoping to contact other survivors – something that the book’s Neville never considered. Most significantly, in the film, Neville is capable of effecting a cure by using his own blood – an unscientific piece of dramatic license that turns out to be rather pointless, since he is killed before his cure can do any good for the world at large.
Seven years later, Charlton Heston starred as THE OMEGA MAN (1971). Considering the action-thriller elements of the book, Heston was a better choice than Price to play the lead, here again named Neville, and the car chases, fisticuffs, and gunfire are handled well enough to make the film reasonably entertaining. The best sequence is probably the opening: instead of introducing us to Neville’s routine at home, we first seem him traveling the streets of empty downtown Los Angeles – a striking series of images – before realizing that the sun is low and he must return before dark.
Unfortunately, the script replaces the vampire element with mutants created by biological warfare, and the essential disturbing idea of the novel – that normality is changed and Neville is now the monster – is ignored in favor of a rather conservative approach, in which Neville (still a scientist as in LAST MAN ON EARTH but now also an officer in the army) remains the undisputed vestige of the old order, who will wipe out the new society and restore things to the way they once were.
As before, Neville is immune to the plague , but there is a difference: In the book and the previous film, the protagonist had been bitten by a bat with a weakened strain of the bacillus. In OMEGA MAN, Neville was the recipient of an experimental cure that arrived too late to save anyone else, but the potential cure remains in his blood. Taking the idea from LAST MAN ON EARTH one step further, OMEGA MAN has Neville’s blood provide the immunity that will save mankind and restore them to dominance of the planet.
In 2007, the most recent adaptation of the novel – and the first one to use its title – reached movie screens in the form of the big-budget I AM LEGEND, starring Will Smith. Despite the title, the film is as much a remake of THE OMEGA MAN as it is an adpatation of the novel. Again Neville is a doctor working in the military, who is first glimpsed on a lonely trek in a major city (this time New York). In a nod to THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, he frequently broadcasts on the radio, hoping to contact other survivors, but many of the other elements are lifted from the Heston film. Again, we have mutants instead of vampires. (At least those in OMEGA MAN were articulate, mimicking the new society that emerged at the end of the novel; these mutants are merely videogame style rampaging monsters.) Also, in OMEGA MAN, Neville has a statue of Caesar to whom he speaks as if conversing with a friend; in LEGEND, Smith’s Neville has a small community of mannequins with whom he carries on conversations.
By far the best official version of the book, I AM LEGEND still falls short of its source material, thanks mostly to some unconvincing CGI mutants and a final act that borrows too much from OMEGA MAN, with Neville once again acting as the sacrificial martyr whose untainted blood will save the world. It’s too bad. The idea of a science-fiction vampire story is no longer new, but Matheson’s book still has the makings of a great movie, and with a few minor alterations to update the details, it could be translated to the screen virtually intact, without any Hollywood improvements. Instead of another UNDERWORLD or BLADE, the world could use another adaptation of Matheson’s novel – this time, one that stays true to the LEGEND.
Thanks to the impending blockbuster theatrical release of I AM LEGEND last month, Warner Brothers Home Video dug into the mothballs and unearthed 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN, offering it on DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray disc. THE OMEGA MAN did not much critical respect in its own time, but over the years it has developed a pleasant patina of nostalgic affection, which is clearly shared by the makers of I AM LEGEND, who borrowed almost as much from this film as they did from Richard Matheson’s excellent 1954 novel I Am Legend, on which both screenplays were based. The greatest benefit of viewing the new DVD OMEGA MAN is that the crisp, clear image strips away the varnish to reveal the truth underneath, which is that this is not a very good film. Rather, this is one of those quaint artifacts from the 1970s when Hollywood, after the cultural shift of the ’60s, was trying to make hip, cool films that would appeal to modern audiences, even though the underlying ethos was just as square as ever. The result is enjoyable but, frankly, silly.
Borrowing only bits and pieces from Matheson’s story, about a lone man besieged by a world of vampires, OMEGA MAN omits more than the bloodsuckers; it completely overthrows the essential idea of the book, which is that “normalcy [is] a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.” In a world overrun by the walking dead, the last man alive has become the abnormal one, the freak of nature perceived as a monster by those whose kind he kills. The profound impact of this idea – the existential despair upon contemplating that human standards are ephemeral in the face of catastrophic change – is abandoned in OMEGA MAN, where Charlton Heston’s Robert Neville resolutely remains the film’s standard for normalcy.
Heston is not just the “Omega Man”; he is quite literally “The Man” – the archetypal white authority figure – and he never evinces even a flicker of doubt about his own moral superiority. Both a doctor and a soldier, he carries a gun, and he’s not afraid to use it. He may be a healer, at least theoretically, but mostly he’s interested in exterminating the opposition, not helping them.
This is understandable in the context of the story, because the competition is equally dedicated to destroying Neville, and they have him outnumbered. The “Family” (as in “the Manson Family”) are a group of albino religious fanatics led by Matthias ( Anthony Zerbe), a former news anchorman mutated into a Messiah for the post-apocalyptic New World Order. Although Zerbe gives a powerful performance, the philosophical conflict between him and Heston is undermined because the game is rigged: the Family is drawn in in such one-dimensional brush strokes that they might as well be cartoon figures. No longer the living dead, these mutants (the result of bacteriological warfare) are clearly meant to be a depiction of what would happen if the Woodstock generation had a shot at running the world: they hate the old establishment; they hate technology; they hate the military; and they hate Neville, the last remnant of the institutions responsible for the worldwide destruction. (Just to hammer home the point, the opening sequence of OMEGA MAN features Neville watching WOODSTOCK.)
The fact that Matthias is, to some extent, right (science and the military did unleash the plague that killed most of the world’s population) is more or less ignored, and the morality of Neville’s quest to kill the Family is never questioned. If they were vampires – soulless, reanimated bodies – this would be easy to accept, but these are victims of the plague, and Neville (we eventually learn) has the means to cure them, but he knows it would be worthless to try. There can be no negotiation or settlement; you’re either with Neville, or you’re against him.
This approach extends to the allies that Neville eventually finds: we know they are the good guys because the accept the wisdom and authority of the Establishment figure. Lisa (a black woman played with some verve by Rosalind Cash) initially strikes an almost militant attitude toward Neville, until she warms up to him and goes to bed with him. That the film does not shy away from an inter-racial romance is laudable, but in the context of the film, it feels like a strong female character learning to submit to a superior white man because he’s just too damn virile, smart, and attractive to resist. Lisa’s brother, the one “good kid” who fails to mindlessly follow Neville’s dictates, ends up dead for naively offering a cure to the Family (thus “proving” that Neville was right not to even try). Lisa’s comrades, a band of survivors who look like some kind of a commune, represents the film’s approving portrait of how “good” youth society should behave: they prove they are okay by acknowledging Neville’s greatness with barely disguised religious awe: “Christ, you’re blood could save the world!” exclaims one.
That statement supposedly refers to the immunity that Neville may be able to pass on to others, but the symbolism is so obvious that it almost overwhelms the plot point. In case you missed it, the director visualizes it for you at the end: In a sequence that beggars the imagination, Neville even gets speared, just like Jesus on the cross, and then stands propped up against a fountain until morning, just so the director can have him hold that oh-so-powerful crucifixion pose.
Not only is the symbolism heavy-handed; the action is badly staged and absurdly anti-climactic. Neville is wounded but Matthias does not finish him off. Lisa is infected and wants to join the family, but stays by Neville. The script hints that his is because daylight is rapidly approaching, but the footage looks like midnight, and a fadeout only amplifies the sense of time slowly passing in darkness. When dawn does break, the people from the commune drive up in a jeep, pick up Lisa (who will no doubt be cured by an injection of Neville’s redeeming blood), and then they just drive away, leaving Heston to sink into the waters of the fountain, his arms spreading out at the appropriate angles. That’s it. No drama, no impact, no resolution, no nothing.
Thus ends this pretentious yet curiously entertaining relic of the 1970s. Seen today, the film is obviously a missed opportunity; it may be fun, bu it could have been great. The early scenes (of Neville foraging through the deserted streets of Los Angeles) have an almost epic quality, and it is easy to see how they inspired similar footage in 2007’s I AM LEGEND. Too often, however, the film has that over-lit, made-for-TV look that infected too many features films in the ’70s, and Ron Grainer’s score (an incongruous mix of jazz and lounge music) is almost laughable in its dated attempt to make the proceedings sound hip.
THE OMENGA MAN seems to be a film that fell victim to its own aspirations. Making a movie about vampires was not good enough, so instead the writers tried to update the material and make a contemporary statement. Twenty-seven years later, vampires area as timeless as ever, but the themes of THE OMEGA MAN seem so dated that it’s hard to imagne anyone ever took them seriously.
The film’s title is a bit of a misnomer: Heston’s character turns out not to be the “Omega Man.” The mistake extends to the advertising copy in the coming attractions trailer, which states, “The Last Man on Earth is Not Alone.” In fact, not counting the mutated “Family” (which contains many infected men), there is one other completely normal, uninfected male adult in the film, along with several women and children, suggesting there may be others as well. The early discovery of these other normal humans undermines one of the most interesting aspects of the film, which is watching Robert Neville trying to maintain his sanity in a world where he has no companionship of any kind.
The 2007 Warner Brothers DVD offers a very nice widescreen transfer of the film. One quirk of the film is that there seem to have been several instances where the editor tried to speed up action by cutting out frames in the middle of shots; although these deletions were no doubt intended to be invisible, they leave noticeable jump cuts at several points, which could lead you to think your DVD is malfunctioning.
There are audio options for English and French, along with optional English, French, or Spanish subtitles. The film is broken into 30 chapters, illustrated with still images, so you will have an easy time navigating to your favorite scenes.
The bonus features include a new Introduction, a featurette called “The Last Man Alive,” a brief text article looking at Heston’s science-fiction films, a theatrical trailer, and a cast-and-crew list. There is no input from Heston.
The Introductionis actually more of a short retrospective, featuring interviews with screenwriter Joyce H. Corrington and actors Paul Koslo and Eric Laneuville. Corrington explains that it “just didn’t feel right to do vampires. I have a Ph.D in chemistry, so germ warfare […] was on my mind as a way you could wipe out civilization.” She also takes credit for making the leading lady black. Laneuville recalls his excitement, as a young actor in his first movie, to be working with star Heston. Koslo expresses admiration for Heston’s performance in his solo scenes, particularly when he is mouthing lines while watching WOODSTOCK.
“The Last Man Alive” is a promotional feature that was shot during the production of OMEGA MAN. Much of it is devoted to Heston conferring with anthropologist Ashley Montague on the set, discussing the characterization of Neville and how he would keep his sanity when his society and culture are gone. There is also some nice behind-the-scenes footage of director Boris Sagal setting up the action scenes. Interestingly, this making-of featurette makes clear a plot point left vague in the actual film: the obstacles he runs into while driving his car during the day are supposed to be booby traps set up by the family at night.
The “Science Fiction Legend” article gives a brief rundown of Heston’s genre credits, which include PLANET OF THE APES, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, SOYLENT GREEN, and THE AWAKENING.
The three-minute trailer captures the schizophrenic nature of the film: the first third emphasizes Heston’s in the empty city; the second two-thirds squeeze in as many gunshots, stunts, and explosions as possible.
The DVD does not offer the most exhaustive examination of THE OMEGA MAN imaginable, but it does give a good glimpse into the making of a film. Fans may be disappointed, but those checking it out just from curiosity (especially those inspired by I AM LEGEND) will find it more than satisfying.